Each year, about 20,000 gray whales make an epic 6,000-mile/9,656-km journey between Alaska and Mexico—and then back again. These whales travel from feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to mating and breeding lagoons along Baja California in Mexico. It’s one of the most amazing wildlife migrations on the planet, and also relatively easy for humans to witness, especially if you join a guided whale-watching cruise with knowledgeable crew on board (in some locations, you can see whales spouting, breaching, and fluking from ocean bluffs, especially if you have binoculars). While gray whales get the spotlight along the California coast, other cetaceans—including orcas, humpbacks, porpoises, dolphins, and gigantic blue whales—ply the waters at different times of year, bumping up your chances of seeing something amazing out there in the sea.
While Santa Cruz gets thumbs-up for its hang-loose surf scene, oceanfront amusement park, flawless beach, and classic wooden pier, there’s another giant treasure lurking just beneath the surface. Migratory whales, including grays, blues, and humpbacks, can all be spied off the coast here at different times of year, and dolphins, sea otters, and seals are observed year round. See for yourself on exciting whale-watching cruises, chartered sailing excursions, or—for staggeringly intimate encounters—on guided kayak paddles when waters are calm.
What makes Santa Cruz such a prime spot for whale watching? According to Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at U.C. Santa Cruz, the town’s location on the northern end of Monterey Bay puts it on the edge of some of whales’ favourite undersea dining rooms. “The whales are here feeding on sardines, anchovies, and plankton, which have been attracted by blooms of microscopic plants such as diatoms,” explains Dr. Griggs. What’s more, Monterey Bay’s unique geology produces an area of relatively calm bay waters, where, according to Dr. Griggs, “plankton, small fish, seabirds, whales, and dolphins congregate to share in the food.” It makes for a fascinating, lively mix, and a great opportunity to learn more about California’s fascinating and delicate ocean ecosystems.
Each year, November through April, California gray whales make their annual migration from feeding grounds in Alaska south to mate and have babies in the warm coastal lagoons of Baja, Mexico. Along the way, the whales do a swim-by off the Mendocino Coast, offering an unforgettable chance to see the leviathans spouting, breaching, and diving as they make their epic journey south.
"Book a spot on a whale-watching charter, or, if you’re feeling adventurous and waters are calm, rent kayaks."
High vantage points along the coast are good spots to spot whales, particularly on calm mornings. Favorite spots near town include coastal trails in Mendocino Headlands State Park, and at Point Arena Lighthouse. For a closer look, book a spot on a whale-watching charter, or, if you’re feeling adventurous and waters are calm, rent kayaks.
Whales are such big news here that they even get there own fleet of festivals, with the towns of Mendocino, Little River, and Fort Bragg all hosting special events, including walks, talks, and special boat charters, in March.
Whether from land or at sea, San Diego is one of California’s best spots for whale watching. With just a pair of binoculars, you can spot whales from the high cliffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserveand the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, both in La Jolla about 20 minutes north of central San Diego. And near the historic lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument, the Whale Watch Lookout Point sits 420 feet above the waves with a wide field of vision—perfect for spotting whales.
For a closer view, sign up for a whale-watching cruise. A 3-hour trip with San Diego Whale Watch comes with a guarantee—if you don’t see either a whale or a dolphin, you can go out again for free on another day; the same policy is in place at Flagship Whale Watching Cruises. H&M Landing offers local grey-whale tours from December to March; in summer, join an H&M landing trip to the Coronado Islands, a protected marine sanctuary just south-west of San Diego in Mexican waters, to spot blue whales, elephant seals and orcas too. And Hornblower Cruises has what is perhaps the best option if you are unaccustomed to being on a boat—its yachts are some of the biggest and most stable in the business, and they offer cruises as short as one hour. All whale-watching cruises depart from San Diego Harbour, just a few streets away from the USS Midway Museum.
If you want to see whales, head to the tip of Point Reyes National Seashore from December to February. According to whale experts, an astounding 94 per cent of migrating Pacific grey whales pass within one mile of this protected peninsula some 27 miles north of San Francisco.
January is the most whale-happy month, when more than 1,000 of the massive mammals can pass this point each day. Access to the tip of Point Reyes is controlled during peak season (December to March), with shuttle buses running between the car parks and prime viewing areas. Other watch-from-shore hot spots include the headlands in Montara and Half Moon Bay (both less than 45 minutes’ drive south of San Francisco). Or just head out to any high spot along the coast that juts into the Pacific. Calm days without whitecaps are best, that is when it is easiest to spot the whales’ telltale spouts.
Grey whale cruises (typically offered December to May) head out from San Francisco’s Pier 39, as well as Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The Oceanic Society offers full- and half-day trips led by expert naturalists for a chance to see not only whales but dolphins, porpoises, seals and other marine life. To see even more species, consider taking an unforgettable guided tour of the remote, wildlife-rich Farallon Islands, a tiny chain of jagged rocky outcrops 27 miles off San Francisco. Waters here teem with life. 26 endangered or threatened species, including whales, birds, and marine life, live or visit the islands and surrounding waters. Blue and humpback whales regularly feed in the region throughout summer and autumn; whale watching cruises typically leave San Francisco at 8 am
and return by mid-afternoon.
Here’s one of those stars-aligning-just-right adventures you’ll never forget. In summer, when conditions are calm, experienced paddlers can take guided kayak tours into the open ocean off tiny Moss Landing, putting them smack-dab in the middle of the whale-watching action. Waters here, roughly 18 miles/29 kilometres north of Monterey, teem with wildlife. Climb into your kayak, paddle out, and watch the show, with humpbacks spouting, fluking, and even breaching all around.
Even if you don’t have paddling experience you can easily enjoy the show. Guided boat cruises also head out from the marina, where you can often see another marine mammal nosing about the docks—California sea otters. Whale-watching expeditions head out year-round.
Because of the cold, food-rich 1-mile-/1.6-km-deep Monterey submarine canyon just offshore, whales and marine mammals thrive here, making it an outstanding place to see whales year-round. You might also sporadically spot smaller cetaceans such as fin and minke whales, as well as orcas, dolphins, and porpoises throughout the year.
Numerous companies offer whale-watching tours departing from Fisherman’s Wharf. Learn more about what you’ll see with a visit to the outstanding Monterey Bay Aquarium. For prime whale-watching from land, drive south along the spectacular Big Sur Coast, where high points along Highway One provide great whale-viewing spots. On weekends in January and February, join ranger-led whale-watch programs at some of the region’s parks, including Garrapata, Andrew Molera, and Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Parks.
Join guided cruises from Newport Beach ’s Newport Harbour and Dana Point, which has been dubbed the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World®, to explore a remarkable marine habitat that’s home to huge numbers of whales, dolphins and sea lions. The underwater Newport Canyon brings nutrient-rich waters close to the shore, so you don’t have to travel very far before the show begins.
The best time is during the annual migration of grey whales, from December to April, though whales visit these waters year round. Between May and October you might see blue whales, which can grow to be more than 100 feet long.
Some experts believe that Dana Point’s 200-foot-high cliffs serve as a landmark for migrating whales—making them a great place for humans to scan the seas for telltale blows. From Dana Point Harbor, Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching offers narrated 2-hour-long whale-watching trips all year, some aboard a 65-foot catamaran. Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale-Watching Safari, which also sails out of Dana Point, has underwater-viewing capabilities, so that you can see the marine beauties both as they jump out of the water and as they swim below the surface.
From Newport Harbour, Newport Landing Whale Watching offers cruises three times daily year round. While whales may be your focus, hundreds of bottlenose dolphins often put on spectacular displays too. On Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula, Davey’s Locker offers whale-watching cruises several times a day, year-round; they boast a 95% success rate of seeing blue whales, grey whales, dolphins and other whale species.
Insider tip: celebrate cetaceans during the annual Dana Point Festival of Whales, a leviathan-sized March event with lectures, whale-watch outings and a parade.
After marvelling at the model of a giant blue whale in the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, go and see the real thing on whale-watching trips from the adjacent harbour, or head out from San Pedro to the west. When’s the best time? Just offshore, you have a good chance of spotting blue whales from June to October and migrating grey whales from December to mid-May. With luck, you’ll spy humpbacks and orcas too.
Near the aquarium, Harbor Breeze Yacht Charters and Cruises heads out in modern catamarans with stadium seating for daily whale-watching cruises throughout the year. Listen to educators from the aquarium as they describe the marine life you will see along the coast, including common and bottlenose dolphins. In San Pedro, Spirit Cruises casts off for 2-hour tours in search of grey whales from January to March. Didn't see any whales? You’ll get a ticket for another trip.
There are also tours out of Marina Del Rey with Marina Del Rey Sportfishing, on the 90-passenger, 65-foot-long Big Whale, which may be the best choice if the possibility of seasickness is a concern.
For spying whales from land, head about nine miles west of San Pedro to Point Vicente Interpretive Center. Perched on a rocky promontory along the scenic Palos Verdes Peninsula, this site is one of Southern California’s premier locations for viewing the grey whale migration from land. In the centre, check out exhibits on grey whale natural history, including a life size model of a calf. Observers from the American Cetacean Society use the centre’s platform for their annual whale census.
The whale-watching tours that run between the Ventura coast and the Channel Islands are almost always eventful. Of the 78 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the world, 29 have been spotted near the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Even if a grey, blue or humpback whale does not make an appearance, the tour boat captains can usually find a pod of dolphins—Common, Bottlenose or Risso’s, as well as rafts of sea lions. Every now and then, a school of flying fish soars right over the boat.
The city of Oxnard, which is less than 10 miles from Channel Islands National Park, is a perfect home base for a whale-watching excursion. Island Packers offers both winter and summer three- to three-and-a-half-hour whale-watching cruises along the Santa Barbara Channel, with the option of extending your trip to a full day to land on Anacapa or Santa Cruz Island. Channel Islands Sportfishing has tours that run from late December to April.
When is the best time to spot whales? Grey whale season typically runs from late December until mid-April, when these 50-foot leviathans are making their annual migration from the Bering Sea to Mexico and back again. The summer months are the best times to see humpback whales and blue whales, which are attracted by abundant krill. Humpbacks are more common, but seeing a blue whale—the largest animal ever recorded on earth—is an experience you never forget. Measuring up to 90 feet long (the length of three school buses), the blue whale can spray water from its blowhole nearly 30 feet into the air.